I think I had a serious article planned for today, but when my girlfriend dragged me to the dollar store in order to find materials for one of her art projects (the assignment was “find materials at a dollar store and make something”, not a lie), I was reminded again of one of the tragedies of the modern age. We live in a plastic, synthetic world, and the worst place this unreality has affected the most deeply is our pop music. It’s been pointed out before that my generation–the kids growing up who are ten years younger than I am, basically–lack any rebellious figures in music. Every single performer is so committee approved and prefab that it’s hard to tell them apart and hard to tell just what personalities they’re supposed to have.
Whoever controls the money behind the recording of popular music in this entire past decade decided that every song should sound the exact same mechanical kind of perfect and that exact same “perfected” brand of mechanical. And while this is indeed a problem with the songs these people are writing and performing, it’s most insidiously found in the production of these songs. Every drum is a synthesizer. Every guitar one of five or six preset digital tones. Every synth one of a bank of 200. Every bass mixed to just the right inoffensive bottom range. And every vocal performance has been strangled into a lifeless heap by autotune. (I know I’m a bit Slowpoke on this, but hey–the world could end this year. Y2K is very real.)
Now, the overuse and overabundance of autotune hadn’t offended me in any personal way when it was relegated to the pop, pop punk, pop rock arenas. You can hear the autotune breaks on the last three Green Day albums as well as the cold precision of every Lady Gaga tune, but that’s all well and good–because I already don’t like the music or the lyrics (for the most part). And when you don’t like something that’s happening in something you don’t like, you just go back to whatever it is you were doing previously. But then I heard the latest output from Michael Bublé and my heart was legitimately broken.
For those unaware, Michael Bublé is one of the new, twenty-first century crooners, fighting to keep mall jazz/bookstore music alive in the hearts of Chapters browsers everywhere. He’s found a brand of music that’s as sweetly inoffensive as he is, it plays to a very specific crowd and again–if I don’t like it, nobody’s got a gun to my head with the CD being forced into my hand. But when I heard his new material–I can’t be bothered to find out which album it started with at the moment–my heart sank because the warm, natural, genuinely charming voice of Mr. Bublé had been replaced by the cold synthesized slides and hiccoughs of an autotuner being slathered on his tracks like rotten marmalade. Bublé had been one of the last holdouts in this increasingly “perfected” world, and his humanity was what made his voice a welcome respite from the onslaught of other singers of his ilk. And now even that simple pleasure was taken away from me while I was looking over the shelves of trade paperback comics at Coles.
Sadly, Bublé was just one of the final dominoes left to fall in a world where autotuning vocal performances has increasingly become the norm. At the moment, aside from people who are too poor to afford it, rappers and punks, every vocal performance you hear in your listening days will be autotuned. It is a process which removes any and all personality from the voice just to make sure you never hear a bum note. Remember what they used to do in the old days when they didn’t want you to hear a bum note? They took it again, from the top, even if John’s voice was wearing out. And there are still a few major artists getting away with doing it analogue at the moment.
Sadly, I can only name two for you from the top of my head. The first is Trent Reznor, frontman (and only member) of the on-hiatus Nine Inch Nails, co-composer of the Academy Award winning soundtrack to The Social Network and member of How to Destroy Angels. As an artist, for his own vocal performances, he’s found a blend between singing and speaking that can either drive you up the wall or draw you further into his songs. It’s also anti-amenable to being autotuned, sounding like somebody just casually spoke into a microphone that was being fed through the wrong signal chain. If he gets a note off pitch, it’s not a big deal. It’s not like the world comes screeching to a halt the moment a record of his contains a bum note–the man makes industrial rock, that’d be like insisting it not contain dark, brooding synthesizers.
The other, more amusing holdout in the landscape is soul singer Cee Lo Green, who seems to have tricked everyone into thinking he’s still rapping. With his Danger Mouse collaboration, Gnarls Barkley, he made the full transition into soul music and hasn’t cast a backwards glance since. He’s sung every song on every release of his since 2004, but don’t tell music stores that the ex-Goodie Mob member should be filed under R&B. No, he’s in hip hop, alongside Dr Dre and the Beastie Boys. He even had a remix made of “Bright Lights, Bigger City” that had a guest verse from Wiz Khalifa. Let me tell you, that sounded about as sensical as clanging pots and pans on a Justin Bieber track. Just–out of place, out of time. Your rap verse would not be included in the 1970s, so why should it make Cee Lo’s seeming best-of from that era?
I feel bad for Michael Bublé, I really do. And I hope he has some live records bootlegged across the country instead of a new album this coming year. He’s a good man with a great sense of humour and not a mean bone in his body. But for god’s sake, whoever insists on autotuning his albums should be fired by now. Fired without the ability to ever work again under their real name. For the good of music.